Just cos

Tonight I found myself having a major craving for the National Young Writers Festival. It’s on again this year, starting Thursday, but I won’t be there.

I was thinking back to the first one I went to in 2001, only a few weeks after 9/11. I was the big thing I did in Australia before I headed back to Aotearoa. I was having a bit of an identity crisis at the time and the festival made me realise that this writing thing I was doing, well, it was an OK thing to do.

Hanging out on Hunter Street with performance poets from Adelaide as the city was overrun by ecstatic Newcastle Knights fans celebrating the Knight’s winning the NRL grand final was, like, rool special.

I don’t want to get too self-indulgent and nostalgic about it, but going to panels and workshops during the day and performance events at night for a long weekend in springtime Newcastle, well, it’s a perfect source for a whole lot of happy memories.

I went again in 2002 and 2003, but somehow by the time 2004 came around, I didn’t want to go. I’m not sure what it was, but I was 29 by then and I remember 30-something festival attendees joking about being over the hill.

But my three years’ experience at the festival has left me inspired (Thanks, the Australian taxpayer). And while I probably can’t recreate that magical experience of drinking alcoholic ginger beer on a balmy spring evening in the festival club on Auckland Street while ESL performed “A shadow the city cast”, I can at least take what I’ve learned and make my own magic, yo.

And it’s probably made me as one of the few New Zealanders who want to go on holiday to Newcastle.

Newcastle iv

I was going to go to a stencilling workshop yesterday, but ended up going to a hip hop workshops. I did some freestyle MCing. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before, but it wasn’t scary, it was just heaps of fun. Most people in the group were non-hip-hoppers, so there was plenty of bad rhyming, but everyone got into it with such enthusiasm that even the bad rhyming got applause.

Then I went to one final panel that seemed like it might be fun because it had “Buffy” in its title, but just ended up being a bunch of people talking about identity politics.

I had a quiet night and ended up watching the live decision show of “Australian Idol”. It seemed so extravagant seeing it both live and the whole one hour show, not the 30 minute cut down version TVNZ shows. It was brilliantly paced with the last two people left on the couch. One of them had done a stunning performance the night before, the other had been lacklustre. The stunning performance ended up getting through to the final three, and then was one of the two to be eliminated. The whole show seemed to have a feeling of real sadness.

Oh, but gladness soon followed. The next show on channel 10 was “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” where a team of five gay guys help a straight guy get his act together. Clothes, decor, food and wine, and the vital art of manscaping (keeping body hair trimmed). It’s such an entertaining and also informative show. I demand that it be shown in New Zealand.

Would “Lesbian Eye for the Straight Chick” work? Probably not.

Ok, I’m off to Sydney soon.

Newcastle III

Ok, more news from Newie.

The first panel I went to yesterday was on television writing. The speakers were the president of the Australian Writer’s Guild, a guy who is a writer on “The Secret Life of Us” and this crazy lady who came in late (she’d missed the train) and took over the room with her stories of how writing for television all but ruined her life.

Here are some things I learned from the panel:

  • When generating drama, it’s not what makes characters like each other (that’s easy), but what makes characters hate each other.
  • The Australian television production industry is a false industry held up by quotas.
  • Drama series that work have some sort of element of life jeopardy – death, jail, illness, etc. This translates to shows about police, lawyers, doctors, etc.
  • British comedy originates from panto-style theory (crikey, vicar!), American comedy originates from radio comedy (lots of talking). Trying to use either of these formats in a country that doesn’t have a tradition of having them (i.e. Australia, or New Zealand) isn’t going to work. What is the great Australian comedy type? Possibly yarning, story telling. How does this translate into television comedy? Um… we’re working on it. If you want to write for television, you must watch television. Watch all the popular shows and figure out why they are so popular. Yes, what is the appeal of watching middle class people freaking out when they discover their lounge has been painted orange?
  • If you dedicate your life to TV writing, make sure that you still go out so you don’t go crazy.
  • Whether you are male or female, have a wife. She will make things much easier for you.
  • Never underestimate the power of having a well known actor attached to your project.

Then I went to the zine fair. I acquired a huge pile o’ zines and a few comics. I was walking past one stand and was excited to see a copy of Annettle’s Mango zine. A guy with a mohawk was reading it. It’s going to be really cool coming back to Auckland just in time for Small Print. Every time I go to This Is Not Art, I always get a little sad (boohoo!) that there’s nothing like it in New Zealand, so it’s really exciting that Small Print is happening. A small step in the right direction.

Ok, after the zine fair I went to a panel on sex and censorship. It turns out that fetish porn is illegal in Australia. Like, a woman in a porno can say “Whip me, baby!”, but can’t actually be shown being whipped, because that’s considered sexual violence. One of the panellists is doing a three year study gauging Australia’s porn habits. Because no one really wants to proclaim “I wank and I vote!”, the strongest voices during porn debates is usually anti-porn campaigners, so the survey is aiming to get an idea of the kind of porn that the average porn-consuming Australian likes. Also, another panellist who works in a sex shop revealed the sexual fetishes of a couple of Australian politicians. I can’t remember their names, so I have no gossip to share.

Oh, and I was interviewed by a guy who is making a radio documentary for Triple J about artists on the dole. I ended up having a long talk with him (off the mic) about Australia and New Zealand. At one point I was talking about kohanga reo and I felt all patriotic. It was a weird moment.

Then finally I ended up seeing some really good spoken word and hip-hop. I’d write more about it, but, oh, I have to go off to a workshop about stencilling. (Shut up, Robyn).

It’s raining today.

Newcastle 2

Righto, yesterday I went on the Magical Mystery Writing Tour. It was a short journey on the ferry across the harbour to the suburb of Stockton. The idea was that everyone would write stuff on the ferry and read it out on the other side, but the ferry ride was so short that really only haikus could be written well. I furiously concocted the following verse:

Ahoy
Welcome to the ferry.
The neglected mode of public transport.
Punkster, zinester, scenesters forget to include ferry rides to the other side.
How hip is it to be stuck behind a lady with a poodle perm?
Or to be near that fat man with the baseball cap?
Now I’ve experienced the ferry and I can only hope that on the return journey we will be invaded by pirates.
Harrrr!

Then I toodled off to the sex panel. There’s always a panel on sex. One of the speakers on this year’s panel wore a giant red dildo around her neck. She had it perched above her boobs, and when she laughed the dildo wobbled. At one stage she said, “I think I’m a bit of an exhibitionist.” The point was made that there are more terms for sexual things that men can have done to them than women have. A man can say “teabag me” while a woman often just has to literally describe what she wants done. Also, now instead of saying wet or wetness, we call it sass.

Oh, there was an MC battle last night. MC battles are really just very cool theatresports. It’s not all that far removed from the dorky songs they make up on “Whose line is it anyway?” So a bunch of MC battled it out. There were no entry restrictions, so people such as a bearded hippy going by the name of MC Donalds was up against a really good MC. There were two girls in the battle. Nurse Pussy (who was ok, but not great) and Karly (who was pretty good). Karly had the advantage of being a hot chick, so many of the guys she was up against were paralysed by her hotness and didn’t perform as well as they had.

Then I went to Harry’s Cafe de Wheels and got a vege pie with mashed potato, mushy peas and gravy. It’s worth going to Newcastle (or Sydney) for the Harry’s pie experience.

Newcastle

Travel =

– The plane was delayed about an hour because it was late getting to Auckland airport and an alarm went off meaning a delay in airport processing.
– I had to wait around for about an hour at the central train station in Sydney for the hourly Newcastle train.
– About three quarters into the train trip everyone had to get off and continue the journey by bus because of track maintenance.
– I finally arrived in Newcastle at 11.30 pm and the hotel lobby was filled with drunk uni students.
– Newcastle rules.

I was on a panel yesterday about artists and the dole. Centrelink, the Australian dole office, is pretty strict and there are all these work-for-the-dole schemes. There were horror stories of smart, talented people being forced to make dorky comics. There were also funny stories of all the creative things that people come up with to get out of doing stuff. Then I made everyone envious when I described Work and Income’s PACE programme. I’m glad that the New Zealand government takes the arts seriously.

There was an excellent panel yesterday called “Why are writers such bastards?” Everyone drank alcoholic ginger beer and yelled “BASTARD!” a lot. One of the guys on the panel revealed that he literally was a bastard as his mother had never married his father. The question in the topic was never answered, but there were many stories of bastardly writers, getting back at former lovers by writing bitter, award-winning poems about them. And y’know, it’s true: writers just write because they can’t do anything that requires real talent.

Last year the bar across the road from my hotel was a nudie bar. This year it had been transformed into a classy establishment. There was some spoken word stuff being performed there. It was of mixed quality. One chick read out pseudo sexy stuff in a pseudo sexy voice and said fuck and cunt a bit. I discovered that almost anything will sound cool if there’s a double bass being played along with it. Then ESL performed two songs “A Shadow In The City Cast” and “If if if”. I love ESL. I bought their CD in Newcastle last year. Frontman Eytan Messiah does this kind of hip-hop infused performance poetry over cool beats. I’m not sure how else to describe ESL, other than they are great.

Oh, here’s a tangent. My friend was telling me about a conversation he’d had with a New Zealand MC who’d just come back from Melbourne. This guy was saying how he was amazed at how all the hip-hop events he went to in Australia were full of white guys, and where were all the brown faces. Well, it’s because Auckland is the city with the largest Polynesian population in the world, not Melbourne. So while New Zealand has a strong hip-hop scene filled with many people of Polynesian origin, Australia has lots of white guys on the mic. So yeah, imagine a hip-hop scene where everyone looks like P-Money, lots of skinny white guys. And there’s a lot of guys like there here, and they kick arse.

Ok, then finally last night I went to a roundtable discussion called “Word is Nerd” about nerd culture. “I don’t want to be a nerd,” I wailed. “I want to be cool!”. But as nerdy as I can be at times, at least I’m not a Buffy fan.

This mornin’ I did some spoken word at a cafe. I was impressed that people actually dragged their arses out of bed and got along to the cafe for the eleven o’clock performance. I managed to concoct a few amusing pieces of writing that went down well. Good spoken word performance is so much better than stand-up comedy or poetry. No need for any “ladiesandgentlemen” vocal tics (a la Mike King) or angry young wo/man poems about George Bush being the antichrist. All you need to do is get up in front of the mic and share your tales with the audience. Well, I find it easy.

I walked up the Big Donger today. It offers lovely views of the Newcastle city, harbour and coast. And it smells like stale wees.

And that brings me up to date. I’m in a dark (blinds down, lights off) internet cafe, but it’s clean and doesn’t smell, so I’m happy.

Newcastle

I was in Newcastle for the National Young Writers Festival, part of the This Is Not Art festival. Most of the time I spent doing festival-related things with all the very talented, very good-looking festival attendees.

newcthisisnotart

But the festival did not exist in a vacuum. It was in Newcastle and Newcastle was undeniably part of the experience.

When I had a few spare hours I’d go walking around the streets, and this is some of what I saw.

The Beach

newcbeach

I took a walk down to the beach. It was an almost cloudless warm sunny day, with blue, blue sky. A bunch of teenaged surfer boys sat nearby. The smell of tomato sauce on a discarded burger wrapper, a faint aroma of the ocean. Sweat, bodies, swearing and bragging. Cheap men’s deodorant is sprayed on a cheap man. The best thing, this was September.

The City Streets

newchunterst

Hunter Street is what I think would be called the main drag. It’s a long street that goes into the heart of the city. It’s ideal to drive up and down on a Friday night. Newcastle has had some tough financial times and there are a notable number of “to lease” signs in empty shop windows.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A flier in the festival program pointed out that Newcastle isn’t a bad place to live if you’re a starving artist. Rent is cheap – both housing and work space. It’s possible to be on the dole and not have to spend all your money on food and rent. And the best thing is, Sydney is a mere two hour train ride away. Damn, if I could get the dole in Australia I’d consider moving there.

The Big Donger

newcbigdonger

There’s this lookout tower down by the foreshore which I believe is affectionately referred to as the Big Donger. I had a few hours to kill on my last day and was walking around so I took a walk up it. It reminded me of walking up the Amedee lighthouse in New Caledonia, but rather than a view at the top of a tropical island, instead I had a view of Newcastle’s industrial areas. It was also a little unnerving knowing I was standing inside a big donger.

Go The Knights

newcladies

The This Is Not Art festival was not the only thing going on in town that weekend. In fact, most of Newcastle only care about one thing: the Newcastle Knights had made it to the NFL grand final, mate.

The city streets were adorned with the Knights’ colours of red and blue. Some businesses just put up a few balloons, others went as red and blue as they could.

I soon realised that Newcastle was the sort of place where a female, such as myself, would get yelled at by walking down King Street on the way back to the hotel. But as it got closer to match time on Sunday evening, the yells changed from, “show us ya tits!” to “go The Knights!”

I’ve lived in a city obsessed with footy before. I’ve been in Hamilton when Waikato won the Ranfurly Shield and one of those mooloo parade things was held, I’ve seen the streets of Hamilton adorned with red, gold and black, but I’ve never seen anything as major as what was going down in Newcastle.

Imagine a small town, that maybe has a bit of an inferiority complex. It’s managed to get to the grand finals and is up against a team from big city that it’s often in the shadow of. Now, multiple that by 100, add some beer, and that’s kind of what it was like in Newcastle. The Knights had won once before in 1997, and the city of Newcastle was expecting them to win again.

Sunday evening was madness. Me and my rad new festival friends were in search of a pub. The local was closed. We eventually found another that was open. There were a few TV sets scattered around the bar and most of the locals were gathered around those and they were getting pretty excited.

We left and went back to the bar at one of the festival venues. We were sitting around talking and I suddenly became aware of the noise of car horns going off. Someone asked, “did Newcastle win?” Oh yes, they won.

Walking down Hunter Street, we were surrounded by drunk revellers clad in blue and red. “GO THE KNIGHTS!” they yelled. “NEWCASTLE!” Cars drove up and down Hunter Street adorned with ribbons, balloons, flags. One even had red and blue headlights.

One of my posse was a little bit annoyed that the Novocastrians were overshadowing the festival. I got a little cynical and yelled out, “go ambivalence!” But ultimately it was pretty fun being surrounded by all the intense revelry.

Getting a taxi back to my hotel, the driver told me that the Knights were a top team. You see, they had got to the grand finals twice and won twice. I didn’t ask about all the times they hadn’t even made it to the grand finals.

NYWF

Despite the fact that the sign at the Qantas check-in counter at Melbourne Airport proclaimed that knives, scissors and sharp instruments could not be carried in cabin baggage, I passed through the metal detector and x-ray scanner with a Swiss Army Knife in my bag. As I walked towards the departure gate, I felt like a notorious criminal gangsta.

Just over two hours later I was in Newcastle and I was feeling pretty good.

“…so I was doing this stupid writing workshop in Germany and I was surrounded by all these teenage boys and I thought, ‘my boyfriend is not here. I can do what I like!”
“You bad girl!”
“Ha, and I can’t believe I’m spilling my guts to you guys. I mean, I just met you yesterday.”
“This is Newcastle. You can say anything.”

This is what I knew about Newcastle: Silverchair and BHP. Oh yeah, and it is the home of the National Young Writers Festival, which is part of the This Is Not Art festival and my reason for being in town.

The only evidence of Silverchair was a record shop that had the neon sign from the “Neon Ballroom” album cover on display in its front window. BHP had left town a couple of years ago and taken their factory with them. The Writer’s Festival was all that remained. Just as well.

“She was like a hurricane that came in and ripped up my wheat fields, and turned my barn upside down.”
“Hey, nice metaphor, man.”

To give you an idea of what the NYWF is like, compare this event description from the Melbourne Writers’ Festival:

“Harry Potter Celebrity Reading: Come and hear celebrities read from their favourite Harry Potter books.”

And this event from the NYWF:

“Our Writing and Our Mental Elf: Noises in our heads speak through the end of our pens.”

That is to say, the people at NYWF were not the kind of people who write stuff about the year they spent in Tuscany.

“Hey, I really liked what you were saying in that panel today.”
“Thanks, yeah, I thought it went really well.”
“Hey, have you got any pot?”
“Uh, no. But, um, if you get any, let me know.”

During the day I attended discussion panels, workshops, and I even made a zine in two hours. Most nights there was at least one spoken word performance event. Some people read bad poetry for way too long, others were superb.

“Hey, you know that hippy guy – the one with the pants?”
“Yeah.”
“Was he being ironic? Was he doing a parody?”
“Uh, no. I don’t think so.”
“Shit, ‘cos I was going to say that if it was, he was really good.”

At one point on Thursday night I found myself listening to a demented reverend (or was he?) singing a song about giving Jesus oral relief as he hung on the cross. I knew that someone, somewhere would find that highly offensive. But it was no one in that room, that night. I was too busy having a good time to be even remotely offended.

“Where’d those guys go?”
“Um, I think they’ve gone off to take some acid.”
“Oh, ok. Let’s go to the pub.”

Since I left my big, evil corporate job almost a year ago, I’ve been putting “writer” as my occupation whenever I’ve filled in various forms. Sometimes I never really felt like a proper writer (whatever that is), but after NYWF I feel like I’ve got a bit more direction. It’s at least heartening to know that there are others like me.

It’s not about money (one spoken word performer announced, to wild applause and cheering, that he’d been on the dole for six years), it’s not about doing stuff that looks good on my CV. For me it’s about doing something I really enjoy, and doing it well.

Life is good.